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Interruptions - how to manage them

Many people, colleagues and friends I have worked and are working with, say they get a lot more done when they work at home compared to than when they're in the office. It soon becomes obvious that it is being interrupted which is the major problem. There are reasons why many people who get a lot done, arrive early and leave late as the early and late hours of the day are the most productive hours of the day. But, my God. Is this really what it has come down to? A society with millions of working people constantly being so disrupted during their office hours, that they rather come to work at six am to be able get something done. Instead of continue working after five pm, they should make sure they don't get interrupted all the time, so they can go home to their wives, and children and hobbies instead of nesting in the office because other people don't respect their time.

Family members, friends and co-workers are born to steal your time. Especially when they themselves are uninspired and run away from their own jobs to chat your time away. But it's actually not their fault. It's your own fault that you fail to make them understand that you need to be left alone to do whatever you need to do. A common problem for many sole entrepreneurs, for example, is that friends suddenly pop into the office unannounced ”because they were in the neighborhood.” You're almost choking the irritation down but you allow them to steal your time. Then suddenly the problem becomes your fault. It's you who fail to let others know that you have things to do. We usually say that it's you who teach other people how to treat you. That's so true and you don't have to be a kill-joy simply because you teach people to respect your time. If people don't respect your time - if they want you to attend meetings that are unscheduled, send e-mails that have nothing to do with you or keep popping up at your office without a clear purpose - then you have three choices:

1. Let them steal your time
2. Get rid of them as fast as you can.
3. Show them over time what you expect from your work relationships (in a nice way).

Now an experiment to see if you belong to the group who must change your habits:

Take out a piece of paper, two different colored pens and write the days of the week at the top of the paper. Each time you get interrupted at work by anything unscheduled, draw a line. Interruptions have obviously different character. Some can be important. For example, orders and other things that result in a salary, but many will only be pointless interruptions. Mark every good interruption with one color and the unnecessary breaks with a different one.

Do this for a week and you'll be able to see a clear pattern.
Say that you are interrupted 50 times a day for various reasons and that each interruption takes five minutes. This means that you spend four hours a day on pointless disruptions - and I'm not exaggerating. You will see. It doesn't matter if it's just a quick email that you need to take care of. If you have a job where you need to concentrate, it takes at least a few minutes before you find your focus again.

The most important thing you can do when you want to prevent these disruptions from ruining your professional life is to set limits. Interruptions are a part of the day, we can all agree on that, but instead of getting frustrated with everyone constantly bothering you, you need to learn to set boundaries better. Other people are not usually looking to upset you, they are just preoccupied with their agenda and often don't even realize that they are interrupting your work. It's your job to make it clear to the surroundings when you can and when you can't be bothered, when you are free to socialize and when you want to be left alone.
Say for example that you create a ”quiet hour” in the morning to let everyone know that this is the time of day when you don't want to be disturbed - and in the afternoon you let people know that you have created another hour when your door is open for everyone. Such a strategy will show people that you're not just a hermit who wants to be left alone all the time because you also give them time when you're completely accessible. In the beginning, people may perhaps challenge the system, but then it's up to you to kindly remind them what the rules are and ask them to come back during the “open hour”. After a while people will get used to this. Changes takes time, but if you are persistent, you will get the important hours you need to be able to do your work.

Are you with me? Good. Now let's take a closer look at the reasons that usually create the daily disruptions and what you can do about them:

Eight common sources of disruption that steals your time more than anything else
• E-mails. Do you have a sound to let you know every time there is a new message, turn it off. Plan to check your emails two or three times a day on a schedule instead and make sure you also have time to respond to the letters received too.

• Your phone. Use voice mail as a daily tool instead of a ”You've come to NN. I can't answer right now, but leave your name and number after the beep.”A voice mail message is as a daily tool that changes. On Mondays, you may have a message that says;”Hey, you've come to NN. Today,  Monday,  September 13th, I can call you back between 3 and 4 pm because I'm busy with other things the rest of the day. Record your message after the tone...”
Also give the caller options to reach someone else who may be able to solve their problems.

• Employers. Help your employees to understand the reason why you can't be disrupted. Give them a time when they can get their questions answered or get access to you in other ways. Use a “Do not disturb”-sign to hang on your door and also give everyone else sign like that as well.

• Internet. Be careful with the internet. It's like a siren that lures you to waste valuable time. Doing simple research online often leads to ”just checking” your bookmarked favorite websites again. Internet has no requirements and it feels almost like work when you're online. If you really want to surf aimlessly online – set aside a certain time for it and shut down the internet when the time is up.

• Other projects. Sometimes when you are working, other things that you need to do suddenly pops up in your head. To start dealing with those other tasks might be a way to get rid of the boring task that you're stuck with right this moment. If you really don't want to do what you really need to do, it's easy to allow yourself to be tempted by something else. You lie to yourself to get away from the task you want to avoid (I'm an expert at this). If you come to think of another project or something you forgot to do (water the plants) - make a note of it and get back to work again. The same applies to all the brilliant ideas you get while working with things that just bore you.  

• Messy office. To have a messy desk and messy room steals energy from your work. You're looking for a paper that you need right now and get caught in a pile of other papers that makes you lose focus and think about other things, stuff that you've forgotten to do, things that really must be done by the end of the day and so on. Anxiety erases all the desire you once had to do what you had decided to. Instead, you start doing something completely different.

• Hunger, toilet, cigarettes. Before you start working, take care of all the needs that just result in interruptions. It may take half a day to pass through the office to take care of all of that because you meet people you talk to and you get distracted again.

• Professional substitutes. This is the person you regularly shows up at your office and who has turned it into an art form to never get things done and who steals your time by never stopping talking. The smartest way to get rid of this person is actually by getting moving. If you sit behind your desk, get up and move. If you stand up, slowly walk away. You can also change the mood by dropping something or turning your back to him/her. You can reach for a binder or something else that indicates that you have things to do. Practice this and find out what works best.


Make sure that you yourself don't become a person who steals other people's time. Don't be the one who is always late, calls because you want to get away from a task or who interrupts other people's business just because you happen to pass them by. If you are such a person, you have to put up with other people treating you the same way. This is common among managers. Immediately when a new thing pops up, he/she can't seem to avoid the urge of calling everyone to a meeting or instantly informing everyone. “Is this really necessary now?” is the question you should ask yourself.


About the author

Stefan Ekberg has worked in marketing for small business for 20 years and has written around 30 books on how small business owners can market themselves with limited resources. . In 2012 Stefan was nominated as Entrepreneur of the Year in Stockholm.

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